Home shopping in the late 1980s often meant contract wars -- too many buyers chasing after too few properties. But today a house hunt can trigger stress from too many choices.
"The inventory is sky high now. In almost any community, you can find five or more homes of similar type available," says Gene Gallagher, principal broker at ERA Gallagher & Company Real Estate in Bethesda.
Although it may breed anxiety, choice in real estate can be helpful -- especially if you take a systematic approach and reach the right decision. The right methods could tell you that a 10-year-old rancher with a fourth bedroom is a better choice for you than an impressive new three-bedroom Colonial in a new subdivision, for instance.
"As a prospective purchaser, you can learn how to use choice to your advantage," Mr. Gallagher says.
Making the right choice takes planning. You need to go beyond your emotional response to a particular house and decide whether it's truly better or worse than the alternative.
"Most buyers forget about everything but their emotions when they buy a house. That feeling in the pit of their stomach takes control over anything in the top of their heads,"Mr. Gallagher says.
Real estate specialists say you should begin your home search with a clear picture of your lifestyle and a list of preferences, placed in priority. If you encounter more than one property that looks good, use the list to help analyze the pros and cons, they counsel.
"Mentally move into each home. Go through your average workday and calendar and think how well the home would work out for you," says Sandy Sadler, sales manager at the Prudential Preferred Properties office in Pasadena.
Are there enough bathrooms to accommodate your family's needs to shower and shave in the morning? Is the eat-in kitchen spacious enough for workday breakfasts? Where will the children play after school? Will the house be suitable for the office parties you hold every year? Will it meet the needs of overnight guests during the holidays?
The best way to consider a couple of good housing options is to take a large sheet of paper and draw two lines -- one dividing the page horizontally and the other dividing it vertically.
On the top of the sheet, list the pros for Property A on the left and for Property B on the right. On the bottom, list the cons for Property A on the left and for Property B on the right. Finally, highlight the items that are most important to you.
Often, this method will make it glaringly apparent which of two seemingly comparable homes is better for you, says Dorcas Helfant, president of the National Association of Realtors.
The idea is to take what she calls an "academic approach" to home buying, rather than relying on emotional reactions.
For those wanting to use a systematic approach to home selection, realty specialists offer these pointers:
* Plan for your future as well as present needs.
"Get real. Envision how your family will be today, tomorrow and at least five years from today," Ms. Helfant says. Too many people think only about their current housing needs.
Maybe you're a couple planning to have a baby who, almost certainly, will need more bedroom space. Or maybe you intend )) to start an entrepreneurial business and will need an office at home.
In the 1980s, appreciation let people hop from house to house. "We did go through a period of wild appreciation. The 'I'm-going-to-trade-up-next-year routine' was big then. But those days are gone," Ms. Helfant insists.
* Be realistic rather than romantic about your lifestyle.
On your house hunt, you could fall in love with the spectacular view from the picture window of Property A, a cedar-sided contemporary. But think about it realistically. Will the drapes be closed most of the day while you're working at a distant office? Maybe you'd be better off with Property B, an all-brick Colonial that lacks a great view but is located just 15 minutes from your office.
Too often the commute is an undervalued component of the house-buying decision, says Daryl Jesperson, an executive with the RE/MAX International realty chain. People put housing and work in two separate categories and forget how closely they're intertwined.
For many two-career couples, commuting should be a crucial consideration, Mr. Jesperson says.
"How long you drive and whether you take public transportation can make a big difference in your stress level," he says.
* Remember your need for ample closet and storage space.
"People want more square footage -- that's the American dream. But if your builder is sacrificing storage space to give you bigger rooms, you're getting the sizzle instead of the steak," Mr. Jesperson says.
* Don't be influenced by the furnishings in a well-decorated resale home or builder's model.
All too often, homebuyers are impressed by a property that has benefited from the talents of an interior designer who ran up a big furniture bill. Or they're taken by the tastes, perhaps for country-style furnishings, of the home's current owner.
Try to picture the home without its current furnishings, says Ms. Helfant.
"Otherwise you could be in for a big letdown when you move in and look at the plain four walls."